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Game Preview #44: Wolves at Knicks

Wolves look to split the season series against the Knicks

New York Knicks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Game Info

Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (21-22) at New York Knicks (22-22)

When: 6:30pm CST

TV: Bally Sports North, NBA TV

Radio: 830 WCCO AM Radio

Line: Wolves -3

What To Watch For

Following a win over Golden State on Sunday, the Wolves have a prime opportunity to get back to .500 on the season tonight at Madison Square Garden. This is their lone trip to MSG, and is the season-series finale with the Knicks, who won round one 96-88 right after Christmas. Minnesota is coming off a day of rest, while New York lost to Charlotte in an ugly game yesterday. Assuming the players didn’t enjoy a wild Monday night out in NYC, the Wolves should have a nice rest advantage today against a team missing several rotation players. It’s a long season, and getting overly worked up over 1/82 is foolish, but this is another opportunity for Minnesota to show they can take care of business.

There are two main things that will determine the outcome tonight. First, Minnesota needs the same type of defense from Jarred Vanderbilt that he displayed in the first meeting with Julius Randle. He swarmed and frustrated Randle all game long in their first matchup. New York’s current starting lineup is heavily reliant on Randle in the half-court, so a vintage Vando game would go a long ways in determining the outcome.

While wing defense on Randle and the streaking R.J. Barrett is important, this game will be won and lost based on how big of a cushion the starters can give the bench, and how the bench can hold up. The extent to which the Knicks bench has covered up for their starters is borderline bizarre.

Players have been in and out of the lineup all year, but when you look under the hood at the advanced numbers, they are jarring. With Julius Randle on the floor (plays most of his minutes with the starters), the Knicks have been outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions (+8.0 per 100 possessions with Randle off the court). With Obi Toppin on the floor (Randle’s natural bench replacement), the Knicks outscore opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions.

This isn’t meant to blame Randle, it’s just an example of a trend that’s shown up game-after-game. For example, the Knicks are outscored by 5.1 points per 100 possessions with R.J. Barrett on the floor, yet when Immanuel Quickley comes into the game they outscore opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.

The numbers are clean and easy to digest in part because of the way Tom Thibodeau’s rotations are set up, but they really just illustrate the main point. In theory, Minnesota’s starters have an opportunity to get out to a hot start and build a big lead, but it will be up to Minnesota’s bench units to tread water and hold those leads. The bench doesn’t need to play as well as they did against Golden State, but they also can’t be as abysmal as they were against Memphis.

At the end of the day, as long as the Wolves are able to withstand the Knicks bench lineups, they should be okay.

Injury Report

Minnesota is functionally at full strength tonight, missing only Leandro Bolmaro and Jordan McLaughlin. J-Mac’s absence continues to give Jaylen Nowell runway to build on his play as the de-facto point guard off the bench. New York is much more banged up, without several rotation players, likely including their two natural point guards. Noel’s absence also means that New York’s bench will be without a traditional rim protector, giving Minnesota an opportunity to attack the basket in those situations.

I am more nervous about tonight’s game than I should be, and would be especially nervous about actually placing any money the Timberwolves laying three points on the road. The total for the game is set at 214.5, and I think that might be a little high. I envision this becoming a bit of a slog, and the Knicks in general play low-scoring games. Let’s go with UNDER 214.5.